SOUTH TOMS RIVER – While many candidates in neighboring towns are running unopposed, South Toms River has choices in both its Borough Council and their representative on the Toms River Board of Education.
For the school board, incumbent Gigi Esparza is being challenged by Anna Polozzo. Both candidates were given the same set of questions. Their answers have been edited for narrative flow.
Gigi Esparza was elected to the board in 2012, and was re-elected in 2015.
“I’m an active member of Bethel Spanish Pentecostal Church, where I currently serve as the superintendent of the Sunday School Department. There, I oversee and evaluate the needs of the education ministry,” she said.
She is a stay-at-home mom. She volunteers as a board member in the Ocean Inc. Head Start Program, and from 2015 to 2017, served as the Policy Council Chair.
“When I was first elected, there was so much that needed to be done,” she said. “South Toms River Elementary School was badly neglected. The Ritacco administration didn’t care about us and it showed.”
She is speaking about the former superintendent, Michael Ritacco, who was arrested in 2010 for bribery and tax evasion.
“But now things are different, my three children – all of whom proudly attend STRE – and their friends are getting the education and support they deserve,” she said.
However, things are looking grim for the district overall.
“For the 2017-2018 school year, the state announced a revised funding plan that cost us $3.3 million. We worked hard, and we were able to get the full amount restored to us,” she said.
“This year, the state cut state aid again by $2.4 million. Furthermore, in the next couple of years we will be losing over $70 million,” she said. “Other board members and I are working with our superintendent and his administration to have this much needed state aid restored to us. As a result, in August we filed an aid emergency relief application with the New Jersey Department of Education to regain the $2.4 million we lost. We are aggressively seeking the help of the public officials, parents, teachers and anyone affected by the revenue loss. We are vehemently looking for any avenue to ensure our kids, our teachers and community gets their fair share.”
At the most recent Board of Education meeting, the board unanimously passed a resolution authorizing the school district to join other districts in a lawsuit against the Department of Education.
“This is something that we have avoided up to date but now have been given little choice,” she said. “The lawsuit will have a district cost cap of $5,000 for the first phase and it will be a constitutional challenge regarding the distribution and calculation of state aid under the current funding formula.
“I have fought for South Toms River Elementary. We have fixed broken curbs and sidewalks. We replaced rusty doors and electrical boxes. We fixed the balconies that were in disrepair. We refurbished the library with new paint and replaced the thirty-year-old carpet with new tiles. We added a new learning community garden. We restored a sense of pride to our school and to our community. And it shows because STRE’s most recent test scores showed more academic improvement than any other elementary school in the district,” she said. “We are not done with our improvements. I support the ESIP (Energy Savings Improvement Program), which will permit us to make needed improvements in heating, lighting, and building infrastructure at no net cost to the taxpayer.
“I promised to be a strong voice for our schools, and I have kept my promise and I will continue to work hard and be a strong voice for all of South Toms River,” she concluded.
Anna Polozzo is running under the slogan “Children First.” She currently works at All American Deli in town, with family members.
She either has been, or is currently, a CCD teacher at Saint Barnabas, trustee of finance and coach at Beachwood Soccer Club, member of the South Toms River Recreation Commission, and has held various positions in the Beachwood Elementary PTO.
She has never held elected office, but she is Mayor Oscar Cradle’s appointed liaison to the Toms River Regional Board of Education. In that role, she attends meetings and reports back to the town’s governing body about important issues.
She chose to run when she felt that South Toms River’s needs were not being met.
“South Toms River is a small town with a dwindling population of young people as well as a growing senior population,” she said. “Residents here tell me we must balance the needs of our children and the need to be fiscally responsible. South Toms River taxpayers are angry about what they consider to be misdirected and wasteful spending on political appointments and bloated administration. They are disappointed in the deteriorating state of our school buildings and a lack of high-quality programs for their children.”
High School South needs repairs and work to make it accessible to people with disabilities, she said, so she supports the referendum that would make schools safe and comfortable.
“About 60 percent of South Toms River’s public school children are eligible for free or reduced lunch. Many of them come from single-parent homes and few of them have parents with a college education,” she said. “It can be very hard for these children to excel or even keep up with their peers in school. Some families cannot afford the most basic school supplies and many do not have computers at home. In a school district that uses a curriculum that is heavily focused on technology, these children are at a huge disadvantage. I have been speaking on the record to the Board of Education and the administration about that disadvantage since 2016. I will continue to advocate for the district to enhance access to essential technology for our most vulnerable children through a device lending program. Computers are truly basic school supplies at this time.
“New Jersey law requires computer science as part of the curriculum and coding will soon be required as well. It is in our best interest to make sure every child has adequate access to these devices both at home and at school. This access will allow children to gain the familiarity they require with these devices that is needed to improve student performance in the classroom and on state-mandated computerized standardized tests that the great majority of our South Toms River children have failed to master due to a lack of comfort and practice with the technology. In an effort to save money, since the state refuses to fund its mandates, we should be allowing children who own their own devices to use them in school. This will enable the district to purchase fewer devices each year,” she said.
“I will also continue to make sure that the district does not lose track of the issues that many adults think are small but can be so very important in a child’s day and have a huge impact on their ability to learn,” she said. “For example, for a while, the district stopped serving lunch at the intermediate level on shortened days. I and other concerned parents worked together to help the district find a way to fit lunch into the shortened school day so children who rely on free and reduced meals do not go hungry.”
She vowed that transparency is important to her, and that she would be available to the community and will share non-confidential information with staff, parents, and taxpayers. She would fight Trenton on the reduction in school aid that the district is getting.
“Parents…are very concerned about the potential reduction of sports and other extracurricular activities due to state funding cuts,” she said. “All of our residents are concerned about the tax impact. I will continue to advocate for fair school funding for our little town and our entire district on the local and state levels to help keep these programs. In the unfortunate situation where cuts are necessary, I will endeavor to work with the BOE and administration make sure that we cut non-essential, non-instructional staff before we make any cuts that will affect a child.”
Mayor and Council
There is also a race for the mayor and council in South Toms River
Council President Sandford Ross, Jr. and Councilman Gregory Handshy are running for mayor, which is a four-year term. Current Mayor Oscar Cradle is not running for re-election.
There are two, three-year terms on the Borough Council on the ballot. Councilman Thomas Rolzhausen and William Gleason are the Republican choices. Samuel Fennell and Robert Taylor are the Democrats.